These are great times for free expression, one of the underpinnings of an open, vibrant society.
By virtually every measure, it's never been easier for more people to express themselves, whether we're talking about politics or poetry or, as our cover story makes abundantly clear, pornography (see "Xtreme Measures," page 24). In a 1999 story for reason, I documented that we are in the midst of a "culture boom": a prolonged and massive increase in the production and consumption of art, music, literature, video, and other forms of creative expression, including political discourse.
In the years since "All Culture, All the Time" (online at reason.com/9904/fe.ng.all.shtml), appeared, the trends it described have only increased. That piece was written just as the World Wide Web was becoming a truly mass phenomenon—and well before the term blogging had entered common parlance. Despite fears of "media consolidation" and a supposed narrowing of outlets, there can be no question that we have more access to more news, entertainment, and perspectives than ever before.
That sort of freedom undermines established power, so it's not surprising that there's a backlash brewing. This takes any number of forms, some of them more troubling than others. In "Gossip Wants to Be Free" (page 16), Matt Welch discusses how "media ethics hand-wringers" continue to demonize Web journalism as beneath contempt. Especially given evidence that the new form is much quicker to correct itself, it's hard not to see the old guard as a priestly class that feels displaced by developments it can't control.
At least that tussle is taking place in a relatively unregulated marketplace of ideas. In a variety of ways, the federal government is increasingly targeting free expression. New campaign finance reform laws, generally feted by the mainstream press as a way of "taking money out of politics," accomplish nothing more than restricting political speech, especially in the months and weeks before an election. (Is it any wonder that incumbents voted for such measures?)
In the wake of Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" during the Super Bowl's half-time show, the Federal Communications Commission, charged with protecting that nonexistent abstraction, "the public interest," is working hand-in-fist with Congress to increase its fines against broadcasters of "offensive" programming.
And, as G. Beato reports in "Xtreme Measures," the U.S. Department of Justice is actively prosecuting pornographers for the first time in more than a decade. "In an age of suicide jets and anthrax spam," writes Beato, "obscenity cases feel faintly anachronistic, the comfort crimes of the legal system." Indeed, given the incredible freedom of expression we enjoy today, it's tempting to laugh off this latest instance of Comstockery.
We do so, however, at no small risk. "I consider censorship a cancer," says a lawyer quoted by Beato. "Once it starts, it spreads pretty rapidly."